For the next two days, at least.
After another rough night at the plate, the pressure continues to mount on Harrison Bader. Given the brief nature of the season and Bader’s apparent inability to adjust after his struggles last season, the calls for him to be replaced are becoming louder. While we can dream on Dylan Carlson coming to the rescue, that likely won’t happen until the sixth game of the season so that the Cardinals front office can manipulate his service time and keep him for an extra year in the distant and uncertain future. In the meantime, the Cardinals will have to survive their fifth game. Enter Lane Thomas?
Prior to a season ending wrist fracture from this hit-by-pitch, Lane Thomas was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2019. Across 44 plate appearances and 34 games, Thomas ranked fourth on the Cardinals in Win Probability Added and boasted a Trout-ian .316/.409/.684 slash line (180 OPS+). When baseball temporarily resumed for spring training, Thomas picked up right where he left off en route to a .963 OPS through the first few weeks in Jupiter. Drawing any conclusions based on small sample theater and spring performance is ill-advised, but Thomas acquitted himself well in both stints and again looked the part in intersquad summer camp games.
If you wanted to poke holes in Thomas’ shiny surface, you wouldn't need to search far. His 2019 value was boosted by a 50% HR/FB rate (four dingers on eight fly balls, to be exact). No one hits half their fly balls out of the yard over any meaningful length of time. Aaron Judge has knocked only one-third of his fly balls over the fence since 2017, and he’s built like Aaron Judge. Trade two home runs for two warning track fly outs and Thomas looks like a mere mortal.
Thomas also stuck out only eight times last year, or 18.2% of his plate appearances. That was his lowest strikeout rate at any professional stop in his career and was more than 5% better than every stop since a 2015 short-season A-ball stay in Vancouver. Even in his second go-around in Memphis, Thomas struck out in 26.3% of his 304 plate appearances. He doesn’t have the power nor does draw enough walks for a strikeout rate that high to play in the majors.
Can Thomas maintain a low enough strike out rate to stay afloat in the majors? Players can obviously change and improve, but it’s hard to look at Thomas’ minor league strikeout totals and have much confidence. If you wanted to build a case that he's learned how to avoid the K, you could point to his 94th percentile chase rate of 22%, an above average rate of contact, and a stingy 6.9% whiff rate in limited time. How much of that is small sample theater can’t be known yet, and we don’t have much plate discipline data covering his time in the minor leagues.
Luckily, though, whiff rates across the minor leagues are available at FanGraphs. Just knowing a player’s whiff rate can tell you a lot about that player’s propensity to strike out. Take a look at the relationship between whiffs and strikeouts among qualified hitters last year:
In 2019, how frequently a player swung and missed explained about 59% of that player’s strikeout rate. In 2018 it was 53%, and in 2017 it was 58%. It’s not rocket science. Some players are better at making contact than others, and players who make less contact are more likely to strike out. You already know that!
So, back to the minor leagues. I took all players who made 600 or more plate appearances in AA or AAA during and compared their whiff rates to their strikeout rates. The same relationship held. Here’s the chart:
The gray circles represent 375 minor leaguers and the red dot is Lane Thomas. Lane Thomas is in a strange position on the chart. In 2018 and 2019, he swung and missed at only 9% of the pitches he saw compared to an average of 11.2% in this set of players. Yet, he struck out at a 24.3% clip compared to an average of only 21.6% among these players. Less whiffs, more strikeouts. Huh?
Based on whiff rate alone, we’d have estimated Lane Thomas would strike out in about 18.5% of his AA/AAA plate appearances, which is incredibly close to the actual strikeout rate he ran during his brief time in the Majors. The 5.8% difference between Thomas’ actual strikeout rate his estimated rate was the 15th largest gap in the player set.
Thomas’ offensive value is more dependent on balls in play than someone with Tyler O’Neill’s power profile or Dylan Carlson’s advanced approach. The more balls Thomas can put in play, the better off he’ll generally be. Suffice it to say, a ball in play with a chance to become a hit is better than a guaranteed out from a strikeout, and in-play outs are often more productive outs than strikeouts. If, in every 100 plate appearances, Thomas traded five strikeouts for five balls in play which earned average BIP results, he’d be worth an extra 7.5 runs over 600 plate appearances – approximately the gap between Paul DeJong and Yadier Molina in 2019.
Am I ready to say Thomas will beat the strikeout bugaboo and become one of the Cardinals better hitters? No, of course not. Steamer projections are the most optimistic on him and only have him at a 91 wRC+ while striking out 26% of the time. Whiff rate doesn't tell the whole story. For example, maybe Thomas watches too many called strikes which lead to more strikeouts than his whiff rate would suggest. It's interesting, though, that he was such a large outlier in the minors. If he falls back in line, there might be more there than the projections believe.
Quite frankly, I doubt Lane Thomas will have much of an impact on the 2020 season. Carlson is knocking on the door and seems like the best bet to replace Bader. Fowler's strong start likely earned him a long enough leash to get through the rest of this year, barring a disaster. While I think an O'Neill/Thomas/Carlson outfield is an improvement over O'Neill/Carlson/Fowler, I don't call the shots from my couch. Most likely, this article will be irrelevant by the end of the week! Anyways, here's to hoping Thomas makes the most of his chances.